Formed in 1989, Zemial is one of the oldest active Greek black metal projects. Though various relocations brought the band to Australia and Germany, Zemial have always been among the premier metal ambassadors of their Hellenic homeland. Throughout most of their career, Zemial took heavy inspiration from Bathory, adding some unmistakably Greek seasoning to the Swedes’ iconic sound. The approach culminated in 2006’s In Monumentum, which stands as the ultimate tribute to deceased Bathory mastermind, Quorthon. And with today marking the 11th anniversary of the legendary frontman’s death, In Monumentum is the perfect subject for this week’s Retrospective.
When writing about Greek black metal, the biggest challenge consists in avoiding cliché qualifications like old-school and orthodox. For where black metal scenes from countries such as Norway and the US over the years started dedicating themselves to increasingly grotesque experiments, the Hellenes have managed to preserve a black metal sound that, even after all these years, stands close to the subgenre’s roots. Other than what this musical traditionalism might suggest, their method has by no means resulted in stagnation. Through the variety of influences they draw inspiration from and, above all, their superior musicianship, bands like Varathron, Macabre Omen, Kawir and indeed Zemial manage to deliver relevant—sometimes even essential—material more than two decades into their careers.
In Monumentum is the record that best embodies the Greek equilibrium between classic charm and buoyant appeal. Even without reading the dedication to Quorthon in the liner notes, it is immediately noticeable that this record—only the second full-length in Zemial’s then-17-year history—is an explicit tribute to Bathory’s late mastermind. In a chrestomathic fashion, this album’s seven tracks eulogize the different stages of Bathory’s oeuvre. With their rushed tempo and elemental structure, explosive songs such as “Born of the Crimson Flame” and “The Riddle” take us back to Bathory’s classic era, when thrash metal still exercised a prominent influence over the band’s sound. Conversely, “For a Fallen One” and “I tan i epi tas” stand as anthemic yet bitter odes to the dead, instead reminding us of Quorthon’s pioneering ventures into viking metal territory. The album closer “In Monumentum / Stone of the Ages” is a direct lamentation of Quorthon’s demise and brings Zemial as close to creating a ballad as they are likely to ever come.
Despite the facility with which large portions of In Monumentum can be traced back to Bathory’s groundbreaking discography, it certainly is not a shameless rip-off. Rather, this album sees Zemial capture the best moments of Bathory’s career, which are then transformed and embellished by multi-instrumentalist Vorskaath and his brother Eskarth (who is still going strong with his own project, Agatus). With both of these musicians boasting significantly more technical prowess than did Quorthon in his heyday, In Monumentum does what its title promises by emerging as as a monument to its inspirer. A monument, no less, that is splendorous in its own right and therefore still worth visiting nearly a decade down the line.